8 Times Uber Has Tracked People
It’s been a rocky year for Uber, although the ride-hailing app’s troubles started long before 2017. For years, Uber has found itself in the middle of scandals -- from issues with drivers to infringing on privacy. However, the one thing we’ve learned about Uber is that it has no boundaries.
From creating software to spy on its competitor Lyft to tracking the whereabouts of law enforcement officials, the company takes extraordinary measures to put itself at the top. However, it looks like it may be finally facing the consequences.
Related: The Worst Hacks of 2017 -- So Far
In its most recent scandal, Uber’s use of the software “Greyball,” which was used to track authorities in cities that were cracking down on the app and have drivers avoid picking them up, has subjected the company to federal inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice. As the criminal investigation is underway, the company continues its internal investigation over sexual harassment and is in the middle of a lawsuit over intellectual property with Google’s self-driving company Waymo.
There were plenty of other times Uber has done some questionable activity -- especially when it comes to tracking people.
Check out these seven times the company has tracked people.
Customers’ iPhone screens -- potentially
Turns out, Uber’s stalking capabilities go beyond GPS. Most recently, in October, it surfaced that Uber had special permissions in its iPhone app that allowed it to access users’ personal information, giving them the ability to potentially record a person’s iPhone screen without their knowledge. Security researcher Will Strafech discovered the special “entitlement” in the Uber app code, which Apple does not usually grant to non-Apple apps because it allows access to extremely sensitive information. The code starts with "com.apple.private," and typically, Apple will reject any third-party app from its store if it discovers it using this.
While there’s no evidence that the ride-hailing company has actually taken advantage of the entitlement, it is still unclear why Apple allowed Uber access in the first place.
In late 2016, Uber updated its software to be able to track users everywhere they went if they had the app running in the background. If the app is closed, Uber could still track a user for five minutes after finishing their ride.
While the company received some backlash from consumers, it defended itself by explaining that the feature was used to enhance rider safety and improve pick up and drop off locations. But finally in late August 2017, the company decided to remove the controversial feature as it tries to repair its reputation and alleviate privacy concerns of consumers.
In the latest Uber news, it was revealed that the company has a secret piece of software called “Hell” that it used to track Lyft drivers.
Between 2014 and 2016, the technology was reportedly used to try to recruit Lyft drivers to join Uber. The system created fake Lyft accounts and would order rides in different parts of a city, which would then reveal information of up to eight of Lyft’s nearest drivers. Because Lyft assigns its drivers unique ID numbers, the software managed to track the habits of drivers and also find out if a driver was working for both Lyft and Uber.
The software was programmed to offer more pickups to drivers working for both companies, and offer incentives to those drivers when they accepted rides in the Uber app.
In March, The New York Times revealed that Uber used secret software called “Greyball” to track local law enforcement who had tried to "clamp down" on the service. Uber would track officials by mapping out where their offices were and targeting the people who most often opened the app.
When one of these identified officials would attempt to use the Uber app, they would be shown a number of cars, which were in fact nonexistent “ghost cars” running on a fake Uber app. If a ride did accidentally pick up one of these passengers, Uber would often call them and ask them to cancel the ride.
In June 2016, Uber rolled out a new update to its app that monitored the speed and other traffic-related factors of its drivers. The feature crunched GPS data from a driver’s phone, turning it into speed information in real time.
This new addition came a year after Uber tested tracking driver actions in Houston. In late 2015, Uber monitored some of the movements of its Houston drivers through a sensor installed on their smartphones. The drivers were unaware of the sensors, which could detect any accelerating or braking.
Friends and family
Upon discovering in early 2015 that Uber's iOS app was “secretly identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased,” Apple CEO Tim Cook met with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to address the issue.
Uber was using a private software framework called IOKit that gave it access to information on users’ iPhones such as a device’s serial number, which was a breach of its agreement with Apple. Being able to access this information enabled Uber to store serial numbers on its servers, and then see when an app is deleted and reinstalled. However, Uber could not see what the device was doing in between installations.
So, what’s the point then? For example, in China, Uber at the time offered incentives for drivers to sign up new users. The technology ensured that drivers wouldn’t create multiple accounts on one phone, which it was able to detect.
Typically, it’s easy for Apple to detect when an app is using private software, which results in immediate disqualification. However, Uber “geofenced” Apple’s campus, so the private function would not be noticeable within that boundary. After changing its App Store review process, Apple noticed Uber’s scheme, and handled the situation privately.
In 2014, Buzzfeed reporter Johana Bhuiyan rode in an Uber to meet with John Mohrer, a general manager of Uber New York. Upon arriving at the location, Mohrer was waiting for her, sharing with her that he had tracked her using the company’s “God View” tool -- which was only available to certain executives and to be used for “legitimate business purposes.”
“God View” was an internal tool that allowed users to track Uber vehicles and customers who had requested a car.